Hello, everybody! Disciple here with Overwatch Curios! With a game like Overwatch, Blizzard must invest a lot of thought, time, and analysis into the creation and balance of any hero it adds into the game. And sometimes it’s not a single hero’s abilities or effects that can make a certain hero OP, but moreso how they interact with the game and alter the way the game is played by allies or enemies.
Symmetra has always been a hero of that type. Her presence in the game alters the way the enemy team plays, as they suddenly have several new threats to deal with. There’s the threat of turrets and her ability to control choke points, and there’s also the threat of the teleporter as well. If the enemy team refuses to deal with the teleporter, capturing a point becomes difficult due to it’s ability to pull people back into the fight. However by taking down the teleporter, you’re forced to strip resources from the main point of combat. Her ability to alter the flow of a game is unmistakable and to this day she still sees a lot of success as a defensive hero option in the game for both assault and hybrid maps.
However today we’re going to take a look back at the history of Symmetra, and how OP she actually used to be. When the Overwatch beta first released back in 2015, she was initially written off as a hero due to being tagged in the support category but offering no ability to heal her allies. As such, players were quick to overlook her and it took awhile for people to even be encouraged to play her. At that point in time, instead of her projected barrier, she had an ability called Photon Shield which would grant enemies additional health in the form of shields until they died.
Symmetra’s would cast Photon Shield on all allies as they left the base to set up a defense, and would then set up turrets before the match began. However the problem with this was that both abilities had a cooldown, which meant the Symmetra was pressured to begin casting shields and setting up turrets early to get all of the work done before the match began and the attackers would rush out. Also at this point in time, Symmetra could only store up to 3 charges of her turrets at any point in time, meaning that it was rare for Symmetra’s to be able to deploy all 6 turrets and shield her allies during that timeframe before the match began.
One of the first patches of the beta, way back in November of 2015, would directly address this issue. The cooldown on both abilities was drastically reduced, meaning that Symmetra would be able to spam her Photon Shield ability to protect the team very quickly, and would have more time to set up turrets as well as less downtime while waiting for the turret charges to come back online. This substantial buff helped quite a bit and lessened the burden of Symmetra’s pre-match chore list, however she was still largely ignored as a viable hero selection as she still had other glaring issues that were left unaddressed. Additionally, with a smaller tank pool, Symmetra’s hardest counter of Winston was a very common pick due to both the power of his bubble shield, and his appeal as one of the hallmark heroes behind the marketing of the game. Symmetra was in a better spot, however saw pretty low representation in terms of gameplay. During the winter of 2015 and 2016, Blizzard brought down the beta servers to assess all of the feedback from the early beta testers and to re-evaluate heroes as well as devote more time into preparing the game for it’s spring release.
When the game returned to it’s second closed beta testing phase, Blizzard brought with it several balance adjustments for many heroes, and Symmetra would again be addressed by the balance team in hopes of incentivizing her gameplay and encouraging more people to play her. In February of 2016, Blizzard would reduce the charging time of Symmetra’s Teleporter by a monumental 40%. As explained by the devs, Symmetra’s gameplay suffered tremendously if she died early, as it still does to this day, just to a more forgiving degree.
This change looked to address how punishing it could be, while also giving her an opportunity to deploy her ultimate earlier into matches so that she would have a chance to use it before the enemy team were to successfully capture the point or push a payload to a checkpoint. This change helped to address the very slow wind-up time that Symmetra had previously, and served to finally bring her some playtime that she had previously been lacking. As a means of counter balancing this buff, they removed the ability for her ultimate to charge while she already had a teleporter active. So overall she was more likely to get the first one active, but teams were now able to deal with her and counterplay around symmetra when she already had a teleporter active.
To this day Symmetra has one of the fastest charging ultimates in the game, and this single change was really the catalyst for people beginning to use her in the second half of Overwatch’s beta. With more reliability behind her being able to create a teleporter in the early stages of the match, players began to explore the option of playing around Symmetra more thoroughly. As Symmetra’s reliability increased, people began to realize the greatest asset of Symmetra– Her Photon Shield. The power of Symmetra to give a teammate +50 health in the form of shields was amazing, as it was essentially a form of her Shield Generator. While Shield Generator today grants 75 shields, the effect of Photon Shield wasn’t limited by range, for one. This meant that any target who was effected by the shields would have +50 shields until they died, at which point Symmetra just had to recast it on them when they returned to the fight. This also meant that Symmetra in her earliest days basically had both Shield Gen and Teleporter available at the same time.
Since her form of shielding wasnt tied to her ultimate, she could increase everybody’s health and still have a teleporter active once she generated enough ultimate charge. And this was the point that Symmetra suddenly spiked in play. Symmetra has always been an easily accessible hero for people who aren’t proficient aimers. She’s relatively easy to play, as her turrets passively deal damage and control points, and once locked on, her primary fire stays locked so long as you are within range and deals scaling damage over time. It’s her ease of use that really elevated her play time and success, but also outside balance changes that would really catapult her to the top of competitive play as well. In March of 2016, Blizzard increased Genji’s health pool from 150 to 200. This single change thrust Genji to the top of the DPS rankings because the 33% increase in health played a huge role in his ability to survive and deal damage.
This was also during a time when Genji’s Dragonblade lasted for 10 seconds, which meant he would get up to 3 additional swings per ultimate than he does on live servers today. With Symmetra being able to increase his health by an additional 50 in shields, and in a manner that didn’t require Genji to be within range of a Shield Generator, the cyborg ninja became a nightmare and players began to exploit this synergy to dramatic effect. On top of that, Zenyatta’s discord orb didn’t require a line of sight to stay attached to it’s target. This meant Orb of Harmony would persist on Genji indefinitely, as would the 50 shields from Symmetra, allowing a 250 health Genji with permanent sustain to run rampant on the back lines of enemy teams to outstanding success. So while Symmetra herself wasn’t suddenly a broken hero, it was a by-product of extreme efficiency and team composition that would see her suddenly performing so well.
During the end phase of Overwatch’s beta testing, Symmetra saw her win rates skyrocket to upwards of 60%, peeking at one point at 65%. That alone makes her the single highest winning hero by percentage in the history of Overwatch’s life span. As the professional circuit began to utilize Symmetra in such a manner though, the development team would begin to shift focus on balancing Symmetra.
Ultimately, she would see the effects of her Photon Shield reduced to 25 instead of 50, in a patch that would also reduce the effectiveness of Torbjorn’s armor from 75 to 50. Suddenly the volatility of these two heroes and a zenyatta paired with flank-oriented heroes on defense diminished drastically, and players began looking at other options for team compositions. It was at this point that Tracer also began to rise in popularity as people were still yet to truly master control of Genji. In the end, Symmetra’s Photon Shield would be removed from the game completely, as Blizzard felt it was too passive of an ability and was not engaging enough for players to use within a game, as it felt more like a chore than a fun mechanic.
Photon Shield was replaced with the Photon Barrier, which, while it can be extremely useful against telegraphed abilities like a Self Destruct or Rocket Barrage, lacks the constant power that Symmetra’s Photon Shield did for overall team sustain. To compensate, Photon Shield was moved to Shield Generator, an alternate for the Teleporter meant to encourage playing her on offense more, as well as the team allowing her to stack up to 6 turrets instead of 3. However these changes were unfortunately not enough to keep Symmetra within the meta, and she still found herself largely pidgeon-holed to defense of 2cp or hybrid maps where she could set up defensively on the first capture point. Looking back though, Symmetra’s Photon Shield was possibly one of the most overpowered abilities in the entirety of Overwatch though, and there’s a wealth of data to demonstrate just how strong she was at the peak of her gameplay in the beta phase.
While some of that can be chalked up to players not knowing how properly to deal with her, abilities that increase a player’s health so drastically can be problematic mechanics for the Overwatch team to balance properly. So what do you all think, though? Was Photon Shield indeed a broken ability, or were players just too inexperienced to deal with it effectively? And if you could revert or change any ability for Symmetra, what would it be and how could Symmetra break free of her stigma of point defense for 2cp maps and see play in other ways? Let us know in the comments section below.
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